Last week I warned the Republican Party that failure to pass the Voting Rights Act extension would further alienate African-American voters. Thankfully, the VRA passed. My warning now is this: Failure to address the legitimate issue of immigration reform could also do great harm to the Republican Party. At this critical moment in the immigration debate, Republicans need to examine the role they are playing in this great national issue.
In many respects, the way Republicans position themselves on immigration will determine whether the party retains the mantle of majority leadership. Will we remain a party that governs - that offers practical solutions to the problems facing the country? Or will we revert to the harsh rhetoric of criminalizing illegals and even those who provide services, albeit unwittingly? Immigration - including the robust annual flow required to keep our economy growing and the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country -- is a fact of life in the United States today. And the only practical way to deal with these stubborn realities is with a comprehensive solution, one that includes border security, interior enforcement, a guest-worker program and status for the illegal immigrants already here.
Some counsel that Congress should start with tougher enforcement and border security but wait to create a guest-worker program or address the illegal population. Only in that way, it is said, can we avoid the mistakes of the failed 1986 immigration reform.
In fact, the lesson of 1986 is that only a comprehensive solution will fix our broken immigration system. The 1986 legislation combined amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants with a promise of tougher enforcement, particularly in the workplace. But the law did not recognize the need for future immigration to meet the demands of a growing economy, and the new enforcement never materialized. Twenty years later, illegal immigration is unabated. While immigrants continue to be drawn to the jobs created by our economy, they have no legal way to enter the country.
As a native son of Southern California, my past knowledge with guest-worker programs bears this out. Illegal immigration reached a peak in the mid-'50s, and more than a million people were apprehended trying to cross the border in 1954. Then Congress expanded the Bracero work-visa program, creating a way for 300,000 immigrants to enter the United States legally each year.
This new legal flow replaced the old illegal influx, and by 1964, Immigrantion and Naturalization Service apprehensions had dropped to fewer than 100,000. As the Congressional Research Service noted in 1980, "Without question, the Bracero program was ... instrumental in ending the illegal alien problem of the mid-1940s and 1950s." The Bracero program and the 1986 failure point in the same direction: A comprehensive solution is the only real and lasting way to address immigration. The American people understand this, which is why in poll after poll they choose a comprehensive approach over one that relies on enforcement alone. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that Americans prefer a comprehensive plan to an enforcement-only proposal by 50 percent to 33 percent.
Of course, there are things in the Senate bill that need fixing - and we must stand strong in favor of assimilation. New immigrants need to learn English, U.S. history and the historic principles that have made this country great.
President Reagan, who was in favor of strong borders, once remarked that "a nation without borders is not really a nation," but he constantly reminded us that America must remain a "beacon" and a "shining city on a hill" for immigrants who continually renew our great country with their energy and add to the nation's economic growth and prosperity.
Americans and immigrants share the same values of work, family and opportunity. There is no reason to fear the newcomers arriving on our shores today. If anything, they will energize what is best about our country.
The only way to realize America's vision is through comprehensive immigration reform legislation. I urge the House and Senate to work out their differences and help make our nation one of respect for the law as well as a nation of immigrants and to meet the demand of the American people that we act on this critical issue in a comprehensive and compassionate way.